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Authors: Jennifer L. Armentrout

Bitter Sweet Love

BOOK: Bitter Sweet Love
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In a sizzling prequel novella to her new
series
The Dark Elements, #
1
New York
Times
bestselling author Jennifer L.
Armentrout draws readers into the extraordinary
,
irresistible world of Wardens and demons.

Dez wasn’t just Jasmine’s crush. A gargoyle Warden like Jas,
he helped her come to terms with her destiny—fending off demons and maintaining
the balance between good and evil. He was her everything...right until the
moment he disappeared without a trace. It didn’t help that Jas’s father had just
announced that she and Dez would one day be mated. Hard not to take that
personally.

And now he’s back, three years older, ten times hotter, ready
to pick up exactly where they left off. But Jas isn’t taking that risk again.
Dez has seven days to meet all her conditions and earn back her trust. Seven
days filled with terrifying danger and sweet temptation. Seven days to win her
heart—or shatter it all over again...

Don’t miss
White Hot Kiss,
book one in Jennifer L.
Armentrout’s
The Dark Elements
series from Mira ink

Bitter Sweet Love

Jennifer L. Armentrout

www.miraink.co.uk

Dedication

To all the readers out there that make writing possible. Thank you.

Chapter One

Nothing in the world compared to flying, to the feeling of the cool air rushing through my loose hair or sliding over my warm skin and along the curve of my spine, between my wings. I was so high, so far above the domes of the Adirondack Mountains that when I opened my eyes, I felt as though I could reach out and touch the stars or rise straight to the Heavens.

Which would be problematic if it happened. Somehow I doubted the Alphas would appreciate a Warden suddenly breaching their pearly gates. I laughed at the thought; the sound lifted and blew away on the wind. One couldn’t just fly into heaven. As with Hell, there were doorways all over the world, giving entry to those who knew how to find them and had reason to cross their thresholds.

During the past three years, much to my father’s displeasure, I’d spent every evening in the sky. Females weren’t supposed to fly alone or do anything other than pop out babies and raise and teach the young, but none of the males were as fast as me. At least none that were around or mattered or...

I cut off the train wreck of a thought process before it could derail me and ruin the lovely early-summer night.

Down below, the caps of the Adirondacks didn’t seem so large and unmovable. No. They appeared soft, like marshmallows. Between the peaks, lakes glistened like shiny vats of onyx and the forest was thick and virtually uninhabitable. Once, I had flown to all forty-six peaks of the Adirondacks, traveling into Canada and then back to Washington County.

A burst of wind caught the underside of my wings, causing their horns to tingle as the current lifted me up as if I was caught in a bubble. For a moment, the change of atmosphere, the pure quality of the air, caused my lungs to constrict and I couldn’t pull in enough oxygen.

There was a brief spike of panic at not being able to breathe, but it faded in the rush, in that moment when instinct took over and my brain held no control over my body.

I freefell, wings tucked in close, eyes wide open and mind blissfully empty of thought, as was my chest, void of the haunting ache that usually festered like an untreated wound. These moments were rare, when there was no obligation to my race or threat of death or memories of those I’d loved and lost. I cherished those brief, beautiful times.

And as always, this one was over too quickly.

Halfway back to Earth, I unfurled my wings, slowing my descent so I didn’t pancake into the side of a mountain. Soaring over the peaks for several miles, I dipped into the valley above Greenwich and glided low over the modest town.

Six years later and it was still weird not to worry about being seen by humans. Nothing like scaring the bejeezus out of a human or two by swooping down on them unexpectedly like a giant bird of prey.

The Wardens had stepped out of the shadows, making themselves known to the human world when I was twelve, and as expected, there had been a teeny-tiny bit of chaos among humankind in response to seeing legends and myths become a very real truth.

For thousands of years, my kind had been thought of as nothing more than the stone sculptures perched upon the rooftops of homes and churches. Aka gargoyles. And technically, that’s what we were―but the depiction of a gargoyle was vastly exaggerated. Even the ugliest of all Wardens didn’t have a bulbous nose or fangs jutting from his mouth. It was rather insulting when you thought about it.

Leave it to humans to get their facts wrong. Just as they misjudged the true nature of our kind, humans also had no idea that demons were everywhere. Some looked just like them, while other demons had no hope of ever blending in. But everything changed six years ago when there was an uprising in Hell. It wouldn’t have been the concern of anyone topside, except that hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of demons had been forced out of Hell by the Big Guy, causing them to spill into the human realm at a rate never seen before. No one, not even the Alphas, seemed to know exactly what caused the uprising, but the level of demon activity all around the globe had gone through the roof. Wasn’t like demons hadn’t mingled with humans before and we’d managed to stay in the shadows and in our human forms, but there were just too many demons now, causing way too many problems and appearing way too human.

The Alphas—those who called the shots—had decreed that the Wardens come out of the shadows. That due to the increasing demon populace, we could no longer operate without the public knowing about us.

So the gargoyle was out of the stone, so to speak.

Alphas were like urban legends. I’d never seen one with my own two eyes, but I had felt them when they’d come to speak with my father. They were the most powerful of all angels and also the most frightening. Alphas were not warm and fuzzy or nice or even generally friendly on a good day. They saw things only in terms of black and white, evil versus good and wrong versus right.

And since they’d created us, they could also undo our very existence if they wanted. I pushed those thoughts away. Thoughts of being obliterated were a mood killer.

After the panic and chaos died down, there had been a million questions we didn’t answer and all of us had become skilled at deflecting. Most humans thought we were like Loch Ness or Big Foot. A legend that had been proven true.

If they only knew...

There were rules that even demons had to follow, and the biggest one was that humans were to remain ignorant of the presence of very real evil in the world. Some kind of BS about free will and what not—that humans needed to have faith that a Heaven and a Hell existed without proof. Seemed stupid to me. If the Wardens and humans could rally together, then maybe many lives would’ve been saved, including my mother’s.

But it was the way it was. Humans either thought the Wardens were superheroes fighting crime, or that we were the Devil incarnate.

You win some. You lose some.

I landed on the flat roof of our ancestral home a second before I registered another shadow in the sky, drawing close at a fast clip. A jolt of surprise shot through me as I recognized my father’s regal silhouette. He wasn’t supposed to be home! I shed my true skin quickly, taking on my human form a half breath before he hit the ledge in a crouch.

One look at him and I knew it was too late.

Yep. He knew.

Crap on a cracker.

My father rose to his full height, standing close to seven feet. His wings, spanning several feet on either side of him, rippled as he stepped over the ledge, causing the roof to tremble under his sudden weight. In his true skin, he was an intimidating sight to see. His flesh was the color of granite and would be just as hard to touch, making him and all Wardens almost indestructible. Two dark horns parted his mane of black hair, each curving into a fine, wickedly sharp point. His nose was flat, nostrils thin, and his eyes, normally the color of the sky at dawn, were now a vibrant electric blue.

He was my father, but as the head of the New York clan, he was the most powerful of all Wardens here. Even I knew to tread lightly when he was in a mood. And apparently he was in one now.

The curve of his jaw jutted out and his eyes flashed. “Jasmine.”

My back straightened, as if steel had been dropped down my spine at the sound of my name. “Dad?”

“You were out there again.” It wasn’t a question.

He made it sound as if I was chilling in the Gaza Strip instead of merely flying over mountains. I decided to play the old avoidance game. “I thought you were in New York City.”

“I was.” As he strode toward me, he too took on his human form. The effervescence of his eyes faded as his wings receded into his skin and his features became more commonplace. But he was no less fearsome as he stared down at me, and it took everything I had to match him, glare for glare.

I got my dark hair and my height from my father, but the rest was from my mother—the fair skin and more curves than the back roads of Greenwich.

“Where are your sister and Claudia?” he demanded.

At nearly forty-two, Claudia was the oldest female in our clan and our token matriarch. Most females didn’t make it to that age. Not when they regularly died during childbirth or were gleefully picked off by demons. It was a worrisome trend. Without females, the Wardens would eventually die off.

“Danika is with Claudia.” We took turns distracting her so we could sneak out. “I think they’re doing some late lesson plans.” Or Danika was currently banging her head against a wall. Like me, she was keenly aware that being shut up in the house, as pretty as it was, was still being caged.

In the sky, the fat moon slipped behind a cloud, as if taunting me. I took a deep breath. “Look, I’m sorry. I didn’t go very far. I was just—”

“It doesn’t matter.” He waved it off, and immediately the tiny hairs on my body prickled. Unease poured into me. Since when did my sneaking off not matter? He placed a heavy hand on my shoulder and squeezed gently. “Things are going to change. You won’t be able to take flight whenever you feel like it going forward.”

My brows rose. “Wh-what does that mean?”

His lips curved up, and some of the tension seeped out of my rigid muscles. When he smiled, it meant something good, and he hadn’t smiled much since Mom was killed. Unlike most Warden matings, theirs had turned into a love affair, going beyond their duties to our race. Once upon a foolish time, I had hoped the same thing would happen to me.

“I have good news for you, Jasmine.” He moved his hand to my back, steering me toward the door leading toward the top floor of our home. “You are going to be happy.”

“Really?” Now excitement gripped me like a warm hug. “Are you going to take me to New York City? Or to DC?” Apart from my late-night flights, I’d never been anywhere besides this little section of the world and there was
so
much I wanted to see. I was practically bouncing at the prospect. “Or are you going to let me go to the mall without Leo and an entire fleet of Wardens? Because they make it seriously hard for a girl to do some shopping. And they scare people. So it’s awkward.”

His lips twitched up at the corners as he waited for the door to open. Our house, which was the size I imagined a high school to be, was as heavily guarded as Fort Knox. “No. It’s better than that.”

“Better?” Holy Christ, I was going to have a stroke from the anticipation.

Once inside the house, he turned to me. Warmth radiated from his gaze. I tensed up, seconds from squealing. “Dez has returned.”

Blood rushed from my head so fast I thought I’d faint. I knew I hadn’t heard him right. There was no way. “What?”

My father’s smile spread. “He’s back, Jasmine.”

There was a roaring in my ears.

“And he’s claimed you,” he continued, completely oblivious to the fact that I was seconds from dying on the roof right in front of him. “You will be mated in seven days.”

Chapter Two

I was not happy.

I was knee deep in freak-out mode.

Dez was back after leaving for three years, without so much as saying a “Hey, I’m skipping out and leaving you,” or a goodbye or
anything?
He’d just up and left after...

I tried to swallow, but there was something huge in my throat. I hadn’t heard from him in
three years
. Not a single phone call, email or letter. Nothing. I hadn’t even known if he was dead or alive. No one in our clan had known. He’d vanished, his sudden departure as horrifyingly abrupt as the death of my mother. There one second and gone the next.

Home hadn’t even been
home
since he left.

“Are you breathing?” my sister asked, her voice floating from somewhere behind me. “Jasmine?”

Consumed with not hurling all over the place, I wasn’t sure if I was breathing or not. I stared at my reflection in the vanity. Light blue eyes stared back at me, set in a face way too pale against the darkness of my hair. Even my lips looked leeched of blood. My cheekbones appeared too sharp, too angular.

The last hour had blurred. Somehow, the entire clan knew that Dez was back and they’d swooped in on me within a nanosecond of my entering the house. I’d been shoved into a shower, because apparently, I needed one. Danika had dried my hair, letting it fall loose in long waves down my back because I was beyond the ability to do it myself. Then Claudia, who either didn’t know I’d sneaked out or had chosen to ignore it in light of what was happening, had brought in a blue gown that I’d never seen before. It was tight around my chest and I knew if I bent too low, my breasts would be coming out and saying hello.

It was tradition to look your best when a male claimed you. The whole ritual was barbaric, absolutely wrong on so many levels. Part of me understood the necessity of having to mate and produce some babies. Our kind was dying off and what the Wardens did was a necessity to maintain the balance of good and evil and blah, blah. The other part wondered why in the world I would sign up for something that would most likely result in my death at some point.

We were given seven days after the male made his claim to say yes or no, to ensure that both parties understood that mating was a lifelong commitment. There was no such thing as divorcing or separating among our kind. We weren’t forced to say yes, and the male, even if he was embarrassed before the whole clan, had to accept our refusal. We could keep saying no until we wanted to say yes and there were female Wardens who did say no, like Claudia. She hadn’t yet found a male she wanted, but...

But my father had announced his intentions of mating Dez and me three years ago. The night before Dez had disappeared.

I dragged in a gulp of air, but the dress was cinched too tight, constricting my waist. “He came back,” I whispered, not sure why I felt the need to say that. Maybe because it didn’t feel real.

Danika’s reflection appeared above my shoulder. We shared the same features, except she was a younger version of me. “He did.”

I squeezed my eyes shut and counted to ten. “Have you seen him?”

“No.”

Why had I even asked that question? I didn’t care.

Danika placed a hand on my shoulder. “Everyone is waiting downstairs. The whole clan.”

The whole clan could go jump off Algonquin Peak.

Opening my eyes, I didn’t see my reflection or my sister’s. Images of Dez and me flashed together in a walk down memory lane that I didn’t want to take, but once I saw him in my mind, I couldn’t stop them.

Dez, short for a name I couldn’t even begin to pronounce, had been a member of a West Coast clan and should’ve never crossed paths with mine. But when he was ten years old, his entire clan had been wiped out in a brutal demon attack. He’d ended up in New York due to the ties that his mother had had with our clan. The first night he had been brought to our home, he had been angry and withdrawn, almost like a wild animal who’d been cornered. He’d been in his true skin, hissing and clawing at anyone who’d come close to him. When my father hadn’t been looking, I had offered him the pudding I had been served for dinner.

Dez hadn’t wanted anything to do with me at first. Crouched in the back of the library, he’d swiped at me with his clawed hands, coming close to splitting the skin on my arm. Fear had shivered its way down my spine, but I’d felt too much sympathy and concern for him to tuck horn and run away. Instead, I’d cautiously sat a safe distance away and begun to talk about anything and everything I could think of. It had taken hours of me rambling about my dolls, my assignments and my favorite books before he took the pudding from me. Afterward he’d asked for more and I’d managed to get him into the kitchen. I’d stayed up the whole night with him, while he ate everything the cook put in front of him and I watched him, oddly drawn to the unfamiliar, quiet little boy.

And from that night on, we were inseparable—at least for the next eight years.

Everywhere he went, I followed, and vice versa. He had been with me the first time I flew high above the mountains, and I had been with him the first time he had finally broken down and mourned the loss of his clan—his entire family. When I had snagged my wing for the first time and cried like a fat, angry baby, it had been Dez who’d guided me back to safety and taken care of me. I watched him learn to drive when he turned sixteen, and when I turned fifteen he said we’d always be together, no matter what.

Now I was eighteen, and he would be twenty-one, and he’d broken that promise in the most heartless way.

“You can’t stay up here all night,” Danika reasoned calmly. “He’s waiting for you.”

I turned quickly, causing her to jump back. “I don’t care.”

“Yes, you do.”

“No, I don’t.”

“But you love him.”

A soulful pang hit me in the chest. “
Loved
,” I whispered back.

That much had been true. I had loved him since the moment he’d taken the pudding from me. When my father had announced on Dez’s eighteenth birthday that he supported a match between us, I’d never been happier than I was in that moment. I was young. And stupid. When Dez had disappeared the very next day, I experienced a heartache that I thought would swallow me whole and never spit me out. He’d been more than a crush. He had been my best friend, my confidant and my world.

Danika tucked long strands of hair behind her ears as she leaned against my bed. “Will you tell him no then, when your seven days are up?”

I stood, surprised my legs would hold me, and took a step forward. The dress swished around my legs in a way that made me yearn for my jeans. “I can’t forgive him.” My hands balled into fists. “And for him to just show up? Announce that he wants me after what he did? Screw him!”

Danika arched a brow. “You haven’t talked to him yet. You don’t know why he left.”

My eyes narrowed on her. “Like that matters? Whose side are you on anyway?”

“Yours. Come on. Let’s get this over with then.” Pushing away from the bed, she herded me out of the room and into the long hall. “This is going to be so awkward. Glad it’s not me.”

“Thanks,” I muttered. My heart was pounding like a big drum.

“You look beautiful,” Danika said, giving me a not-so-gentle push toward the stairwell.

Did I have time to run outside and shove my face in mud? The last thing I wanted was to look special for Dez. Nervousness caused my breath to catch as I gripped the banister. Or maybe it was the dress? I couldn’t breathe either way.

Voices from the first floor floated up to us, and I strained to pick out who they belonged to as I made my way down the stairs. Blood roared in my ears, and my mouth dried as I reached the second-floor landing. I started to lean over, to take a peek, but Danika caught my arm and all but dragged me down the remaining stairs.

I couldn’t even remember the last time the entire clan had gathered in one room together, especially at this time of the evening, when most would be preparing to leave for the nightly hunts. The crowd was enormous to me in that moment. The males tall and broad, dressed in dark leather pants. A few females were among them, trying to wrangle the children. One of them, a little boy no more than three, rushed across the atrium. Under the sky dome, he phased out of his human form. Halfway. Horns sprouted among his blond curls. Gray wings grew from his back, thin and uneven. One arched into the air and the other drooped to the side. He giggled as a large male stepped out and swooped him up into his arms.

Danika elbowed me forward.

I tripped, sending her a dark look.

“There she is.” My father’s voice was like a clap of thunder, heavy with pride, and I felt as if I was trussed up for the auctioning block.

An older Warden with gray hair and a heavily lined face grumbled, “It’s about time, Garrick. None of us are getting any younger.”

Hands fisting once more, I kept my eyes trained on my father as I forced my legs to keep moving. The crowd parted as I walked in a numb daze. I couldn’t look at any of the faces I passed. My stomach twisted and ached.

My dad said something and he was still smiling, but I couldn’t follow the conversation. Every muscle in my body locked up as he stepped aside. Against my will, my gaze moved to the spot he’d stood in.

And there
he
was.

My heart skipped a beat and then sped up.

Dez stood before me, taller and broader than I remembered. He was the same in so many ways, but so much had changed. His hair was a deep auburn and when he’d been younger, it had been cropped short on the sides, the middle a spiky Mohawk. Not anymore. Now his hair fell in soft waves, barely brushing his shoulders. His eyes were the same—pale blue framed by heavy, thick lashes. The lack of the Mohawk wasn’t the only change. The rest of him? Nothing of the young man who’d left three years ago remained in the face that was both a stranger’s and familiar.

The round boyishness of his face had been smoothed away in the last three years and replaced with hard lines. His jaw was cut, cheekbones broad and high. There was a slight hook in his nose, as if it had been broken and not set correctly. His brows formed graceful arches over his eyes and his lips appeared fuller than before. A traitorous thought seeped in: Were his lips as firm as they looked? Those lips weren’t pulled into a smile, and Dez had
always
smiled for me. They were parted now, and as I dragged my gaze to his, I realized he wasn’t the boy I’d fallen in love with.

Dez stared back at me, pupils slightly dilated and starting to stretch vertically. Shock splashed over his striking face, and I couldn’t understand why he was so surprised. I hadn’t changed in the three years he’d been gone. Well, I wasn’t as naive as I’d been then and my breasts were most definitely bigger. So were my hips.

His gaze dipped for a fraction of a second, and my eyes narrowed. Irritation pricked at my skin. Was he seriously standing here checking me out? But my annoyance warred with a sense of heightened awareness that I was unfamiliar with. Warmth flooded my veins as his gaze met mine. Electricity sparked in the air between us as our stares locked.

Dez moved so quickly that I didn’t even have a chance to prepare myself. One second he was a foot from me, and the next, his hand cupped the back of my head, his fingers threading through my hair.

My heart leaped into my throat when I realized what he was going to do. I opened my mouth to protest, but it was too late.

Dez kissed me.

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